Hassan Khan, Jewel (2010), video still, 35mm film transferred to Full HD video, accompanied by music composed by the artist 6 minutes 28 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel.

Artist, writer and musician, Hassan Khan’s complex and accurate method of addressing contentious subjects inevitably leaves the audience dwelling on the impact of his works and challenged by the crucial questions he raises. Reading his booklet Nine Lessons learned from Sherif Al Azma, made me want to have an insight into his personal approach to the multi-dimensional concept of identity and other aspects of his art practice.

Mayssa: The context in which an artwork is shown obviously affects its form and the way it is perceived by the public, is the gallery space your preferred choice for showing your work and how would you treat your work if it were outside the art space context?

Hassan Khan: These days I am not so interested in placing the work outside the art space; I find the art space very useful because it’s a framed space that allows for clarity about what you’re doing and why. What I mean is that there is no pretension to things beyond the intentions of the artwork. When placed outside, claims are implicitly made, that it will, for example, positively impact on the environment it is placed in. I am not interested in instrumentalizing my work in this manner.

Mayssa: The work nevertheless is instrumentalized by the market, how do you read the type of consumption that takes place within the gallery context?

Hassan: I think it is more useful to understand the market in a much more expanded sense than just the selling and buying of art. The market is for me the net total of understandings and perceptions of art operational at any one point. These understandings give the work value and meaning in more than merely financial terms. Thus the attitude towards the work you’re experiencing is informed by what we can call the “market” but that is operational everywhere, inside and outside the art space. That’s why I believe it’s important to stop laying the blame on the cycle of commerce but rather find a way of analyzing how works appear and why. This is an art historical project of the utmost importance. It’s not the artist’s job to do that. We can only resist our instrumentalization and try to as much as possible use every opportunity presented to us, as long as we can do so on our own terms.

Mayssa: Would you prefer that your works be understood independently from political readings and do you think it would be possible to do that?

Hassan: Well I do not resist politics or the possibility of political action as such. I believe as individuals, citizens, as practicing professionals or inspired “idiots” (as some would see us) from whatever position we inhabit, we can always act from our positions in a political fashion, no matter how restricted. I just like to keep it away from being used as a category to understand, judge or analyze art works. My demand is extreme and would seem, to many, incredibly conservative. My experience, however, shows that actually the most radical position, the one that allows for the greatest openness (not the multitude of choice but rather the very quality and nature of the relationship to choice) in the relation between the work and the audience, has been the insistence on the work. The work. The work.

Hassan Khan, The Dead Dog Speaks (2010). Animation with dubbed dialogue recorded in 28 voices, 4 minutes 2 seconds. Courtesy of the artist.

Mayssa: I would like to refer to a statement – in an earlier conversation we had – whereby you said that art doesn’t need to play a role and that you refuse to reduce art to the function of promoting an identity, representing a place or an idea, wouldn’t you agree however that art attempts to play a role of changing mainstream systems and perceptions in a socio-political context?

Hassan: Art is practice, and that anyways always has an impact. It is an industry, it has a political economy as well as direct cultural impact, it’s discussed, it’s present in the media, and it is a space within public discourse. It has a role and it exists within a socio-political, economical context, it circulates. It plays a role regardless of the desires of purist. I am, however, not saying it has a responsibility; I am just trying to describe the contours of its presence through its various appearances and functions. Besides, it’s a form of investment for money launderers; it helps transform radical ideas into consumable things that are assimilated into mainstream culture, which is in my opinion a highly problematic aspect to the art industry.

Art performs a normalizing role, it normalizes what might not be otherwise so acceptable to the mainstream, it is also deeply involved in how class plays itself out in society. My answer is, I will not demand that art play a more palatable role, for I refuse to normalize the normalizer. You will always have art works that don’t fit the system but in the end, even outsiders are inextricably linked to it.

I however insist, I cannot make the claim that art should play any other role than it does, whether positive or negative. That claim is in itself very destructive for the practice of art, what it does is to superficialize and instrumentalize the whole field.

Mayssa: Knowing that art is stuck between an industry and a non-commodifiable space, do you feel that it is necessary to explain all elements that form an artwork?

Hassan: What I find interesting in art is the fact that there is always a “surplus of the unexplainable” that is absolutely necessary for it to function in the first place, in a sense the market itself needs to become something that is not 100% commodifiable. To resist total commodification, it is necessary to never make the claim of resistance and instead just allow a condition to occur in spite of itself.

Hassan Khan, Evidence of Evidence II (2010). 350 cm x 298 cm, vinyl print
directly attached to the wall, found oil painting ( 34.5 x 25 cm) scanned at high
resolution and printed at roughly ten times its original size. Courtesy of the artist
and Galerie Chantal Crousel.

Mayssa: From theory to practice, a couple of examples of your work come to my mind, mainly after having read your booklet Nine Lessons Learned from Sherif El Azma – which was the main trigger to this interview – I got particularly interested in how you discuss the self through the antagonist who’s also in reality one of your best friends and fellow artist/film maker, could you explain more what lies behind the idea of the antagonist here.

Hassan: You will notice that Sherif is always referred to throughout the text as “Sherif El-Azma”. In a sense I’m intentionally and consciously treating him as an object, an entity or a force that is not merely a person or a character. This force is defined as “the antagonist”. The antagonist is many things here; on one level he is the opposite of the protagonist, which in this case is “the self”, even if he is its biggest ally. In trying to speak about a friendship I was interested in understanding how difference is an integral part of producing a relationship as well as an understanding of ones own self. On the other hand, these comments relate to the wider social sphere, where Sherif El-Azma acts as a lens that allows us to see the bloody mess underneath everything, the mess that makes everything possible.

In the end the text plays with my persona as the writer. It’s an attempt at reconstructing the process of thinking while producing a portrait of someone I know. It is also a self-portrait. The idea of discussing the antagonist, in this case Sherif, is useful because it puts him in an active role in a relation to things outside of him. So the antagonist isn’t someone alone floating in the universe but rather a point that is always in relation to someone or something else, in this case that could be sometimes hostile or tense but it helps describe a relationship.

Mayssa: You’ve mentioned your project 17 and in AUC in your book, would you consider the latter (Nine Lessons Learned from Sherif El Azma) a continuation of this project because of the approach of the self through the antagonist.

Hassan: I think 17 and in AUC is a totally different type of project than Nine Lessons Learned from Sherif El Azma. 17 and in AUC was a performative act that was both physical and durational, it took 14 days to utter. The text was produced under certain conditions that were not related to the act of writing, they were related to a situation, an actual physical architecture and a relationship with an audience. Through that a text was produced and then transcribed. The text in this case has the act of remembering as its raw material. However, Nine Lessons Learned from Sherif El Azma is a much more writerly text, an essay. The impulse behind it is very measured, it’s written in a semi-analytical contemplative fashion. In 17 and in AUC there is analysis but everything is pushed through a stream of consciousness, so the text itself possesses an identity outside the act of writing, while Nine Lessons Learned from Sherif El Azma is deeply connected to the act of writing itself. So they come from totally different positions, I think they’re totally different types of texts.

Hassan Khan, 17 and in AUC (2003). Performance shot, performative action over the span of 14 days the artist sits for four hours every night in a soundproofed one-way mirrored architectural construction with speakers embedded in glass drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and speaking about his undergraduate years at the American University in Cairo, lights, microphone amplifiers, artist presence, beer and cigarettes.Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel.

Mayssa: Can you describe the antagonist position in 17 and in AUC in comparison to Nine Lessons Learned from Sherif El Azma ?

Hassan: I think the link is, ironically, the figure of the rebel, how that figure is, far from being innocent or admirable, deeply connected to certain social formations, a national and class history. In Nine Lessons Learned from Sherif El Azma I am constructing a relationship, by constructing an antagonist that I look at and describe and then deal with. The text builds a conduit through which to arrive to a sense of the self. In 17 and in AUC I am trapped, in an architectural construction, in a very real form, in a physical fashion; I am framed- I have myself become the antagonist. I don’t know how much you know about 17 and in AUC or if you’ve seen the text?

Mayssa: I haven’t read the actual text, only read about the performance.

Hassan: Ok, in 17 and in AUC I can’t see or hear the people outside the room. The audience is however able to see and hear me because the audio is broadcast through the speakers and the glass walls are one-way mirrored. Through this kind of construction the audience experiences a form of communication that is not part of their daily life. For example they’re able to look at me straight in the eyes without me registering their presence, this is impossible in daily life. When you look into someone’s eyes he or she also sees you; something crucial happens in that moment. This is not the case in 17 and in AUC. Here I’m changing a very simple element in the rules of communication and by doing this I’m able to allow a portrait of the self that is grounded in difference as well as recognition to become possible; a sort of parallel universe where the self becomes totally alien, because people are able to look at it but unable to witness the reciprocal recognition. I thus become totally external to them, which means that I become something that they can observe with great detachment. This is, in this case, I believe greatly productive. So I become the antagonist, even in a technical sense I become the antagonist. I become the figure of the antagonist behind the glass. That’s useful for me as a subject-position in exploring my own memories, and it’s useful for the audience watching this because it’s a way of returning that look (I refuse to use the word gaze here) back at their own self without falling into the replication of a self-image based upon the generic hero. If this were ‘standard’ theatre for example, the act would have been heroic. The self would be on stage performing its heroism, presenting it to the audience to consume and make it theirs, and everybody can have their moment of a secretly unsatisfying and tired catharsis. We would have been in the hall of mirrors, of “self-image”. However the architectural form, as well as this strategy of framing the antagonist, makes that type of relationship not possible anymore. We are thus in the space of production, the production of positions.

Mayssa: In many ways this performance is a form of mimesis, the hero is the group that reflects back its self-image and by saying catharsis there appears to be a violent desire on your behalf to create awareness for the need of social change.

Hassan: Mimesis is present as a layer in the work of course. But I think it’s rougher and rawer than a perfect mirror. What we have instead is projections, fantasies and disagreement. I remember on the fourteenth day when the piece was finally finished, coming out of this room and discovering a massive crowd. A sort of grotesque party (that hadn’t been there before in previous days) a celebration that was totally misguided. But it thrilled me in a perverse way. Even as it demonstrated how easy it is to recuperate everything. Beware utopia.

Mayssa: I would like to go back to the question of art production with a function of promoting an identity; I understand that you refuse to discuss art in a reductive form but can you say more about this specific subject?

Hassan: The function of promoting an identity is a very interesting question. After the Youth Salon in Cairo I traveled to Alexandria and spent a week with Bassam El Baroni looking at all the material we had gone through in the jury again. We looked at more than a thousand works of art over the period of one week for one more time; these works were submitted from all around Egypt by artists under the age of 30. We were trying to understand what the problems were, why there were so many works that we found to be uninteresting. One useful tool we came up with was to analyze the artwork by what it tells us about the artist’s self identity, the artist portrait it proposes.

What we noticed in a lot of works, especially those we were critical of, is that the work encodes the artist’s self image and then demands that the audience decodes that image and communes with it through an easy form of pathos. We saw the artist as tormented and romantic, as the political activist, as a responsible and conscious member of society, a sensitive observer of the world, a concerned nationalist who is there to help present a vibrant and positive image of the nation, as trend setter and avant-garde hero, and the list goes on: a series of models of what the artist is. These models have a history, of course. A history that is locally sensitive even if a lot of the tropes are globally shared. These models become easy to pick, regardless of their histories. Artists pick a model that best suits their sensibility and they work through it only to be left with a work whose sole function is to notate this idea. It basically means that it’s completely narcissistic; we end up with an image of the artist as a hero. We experience the artist’s drama and recognize it, and with that moment of recognition comes an easy form of satisfaction. I think I will interview Bassam El-Baroni to continue this trail.

Hassan Khan, installation shot from I am a hero/You are a hero (1999). Five channel video installation, suspended hammer. Courtesy of the artist.

Mayssa: I look forward to it. On the subject of audiences, from your description of 17 and in AUC it feels like it occupies a big space in your work, how did your method come to this integration of the public in your process?

Hassan: My working method has developed quite organically over the years. In the early 90s, as an undergraduate university student, I became involved in many things some of which can possibly be seen in retrospect as a form of art practice. There wasn’t much consciousness about putting it within the art context, it was experienced as a form of excitement and energy, and being young of course.

My interests intersected with some other highly inspiring people including Sherif El-Azma, Ahmed El Attar and Amr Hosny. There was also an attempt at finding a public driven by a curiosity, and confidence, about what kind of interaction would happen with the audience. This search led to the first instance (of many) of public conflict in 1995.

My very first public presentation of a work, was a collaborative piece called Lungfan produced with Amr Hosny and shown at the Cairo Atelier. We were immediately attacked by almost everyone present, accused of attempting to brainwash the audience, being agents of Israel, destructive elements of society, lost youth, the list goes on. That was my first encounter with a wider public. Over the next 5 years, I pursued with the same kind of energy but in a more formally conscious manner through the use of video. What I appreciate deeply to this very day is the lack of self-consciousness; there was something immediate and direct about the work, which I consider a quality.

Amr Hosny / Hassan Khan, Lungfan (1995). Single channel sequence of images accompanied by sound 13 minutes 30 seconds. Courtesy of Hassan Khan and Amr Hosny.

Mayssa: How did this quality translate for the audience?

Hassan: In that instance you imagine that there’s an audience, but you’re not trying to please that audience, you’re trying to hit it with different things. By the early 2000s I had began working in journalism and was more consciously interested in building an engaged, sometimes surprising interaction with the audience. At that point of time, my work became more directly engaged with the social sphere, there was an attempt to build a conversation in those terms.

 Hassan Khan, video still from To the man masturbating in the toilet of the Charles De Gaulle airport (2002). Two channel video installation, suspended screen, vinyl text based on the handwriting of the artist directly attached to the wall. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel.

Mayssa: A final question with regards to your practice, can you describe how it developed/changed after that?

Hassan: Around 2002-03 I began to feel frustrated, I felt like I was slowly sliding in to the trap of a successful formulaic practice, a signature that one finds and repeats ad nauseam. I believe this is the death of the artist. The moment your formula is identified, and the relationship with the public is set and more or less guaranteed, your role becomes that of a custodian following and servicing that construction. I felt a great desire to break out of the formulas I had created for myself and to try to regain some of the earlier energy. But of course you can never go back. At that point I started to give myself more space and allow the work’s very own enigma to appear. What does that mean exactly? To not limit the work to merely that of an analysis of what we observe. The work here is not about understanding how things operate, but rather the production of a language. A language whose referents are always elusive, because it is a language that one can only strive to grasp yet never completely master. I know that I don’t want the work to end up becoming a message from the artist to the world. At the same time I am not interested in practicing a series of formal art exercises. You have to build a relationship with yourself where you discover what is, for a lack of a better word, “charged” and begin the process of struggling with that- following it, giving it meanings and abandoning them. You have to not in the end wrap it up in cellophane paper and present it, because that’s not the point. So through this relationship I realized while working that I imagine a public, I’m always imagining a public, an invisible public, in my head.

Published January 13, 2011